Niebuhr on caballeros

January 31, 2021

I’m rereading Reinhold Niebuhr’s “Moral Man and Immoral Society”, which I read back when I was at Union Seminary.

This is from chapter 5, and it reminds me of the problems I had with the word “caballero”:

The moral excellencies which privileged classes claim and by which they justify their special advantages in society are not always of the utilitarian type. The middle classes may emphasize the social usefulness of thrift and industry and may claim to possess these virtues in an extraordinary degree; but the landed aristocrats have always based their claims to eminence upon quite different grounds. They claimed moral superiority because they lacked rather than possessed utilitarian virtues. They affected to despise not only the industry of the worker but that of the trader and of any person who was under the necessity of earning his living. They exalted the amenities of a leisured life and placed manners in the category of morals. There is, in the moral attitudes of the aristocracy, a curious confusion of manners and morals which expresses itself in interesting ambiguities in every language. “Gentlemen” and “noblemen” in English and “adel” and “edel” in German are significant examples of words to be found in all languages, which have the connotation of well-born and well-mannered on the one hand, and virtuous and considerate on the other. They illustrate how those who could cultivate the manners of a leisured life arrogated the prestige of moral virtue for their achievements. The double connotation of “villain” and “Kerl” proves that they were not slow to ascribe lack of moral worth to the poor. The English word “gentle” springs from a Latin root which had the same ambiguity, meaning both well-born and morally tender. The Greek word _ùy__p seems originally to have meant only “well-born,” but in the Greek tragedies it is used to describe nobility without reference to birth. Similar evidences of the aristocratic confusion of manners and morals seem to exist in every tongue.

In an earlier post I noted these difficulties in the Spanish word “caballero,” which I was dealing with as I read “Don Quixote.”

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